Cyborg uterine geography

Cyborg uterine geography

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My article, “Cyborg uterine geography: complicating ‘care’ and social reproduction” is now published in Volume 8, Issue 3 of the the journal Dialogues in Human Geography. It is the anchor article in a forum featuring responses from professors Heidi Nast, Robyn Longhurst, Kath Browne, and Maria Fannin – followed by a rejoinder from me. The forum threw up lots of interesting lines of contention around the politics and value of ‘generosity’, the gender of the maternal.

Abstract

Most geographers have sided with ‘cyborgs’ (technonatural subjects) against ‘goddesses’ (e.g. Mother Earth) on questions of embodiment. In itself this provides no justification for the relative dearth (in geography) of theorizing ‘with’ the uterus as a site of doing and undoing; what I propose to call uterine geography. ‘Uterine’ relations are fundamentally cyborg, animatedly labouring and not only spatial but spatializing: they make and unmake places, borders, kin. This includes not only abortion, miscarriage, menstruation and pregnancy (whose transcorporeal and chimeric character is well documented in medical anthropology) but also other life-enabling forms of holding and letting go that do not involve anatomical uteri (such as trans-mothering and other alter-familial practices). Despite our discipline’s ostensible interest in co-production, hybridity and the more-than-human, the ‘doing’ aspects of intra and interuterine processes have tended to be black-boxed in accounts of care economies and social reproduction. The proposed remedy is deromanticization: an approach that critically politicizes uterine relations as historically contingent and subject to amelioration through struggle. Potential aides include Maggie Nelson’s idea that ‘labor does you’, Suzanne Sadedin’s account of gestation’s mutual hostility and the concepts of ‘sym-poiesis’ and ‘metramorphosis’. One notable consequence of this expanded concept of the uterine is that ‘assisted reproduction’, as it is characterized today, ceases to be categorically separate from other kinds of reproduction.

The paper as a whole can currently be accessed for free here.

Some quick reflections on the discussion…

Among the overwhelmingly positive ‘forum’ responses, Longhurst was sceptical of my claim that feminist geographers (and thinkers in the humanities generally) have lacked an active verb to describe the work of being pregnant. Or at least, she doubts that the verb “to gestate” is it, noting that the pregnant women she has interviewed did not talk about “gestating”. Separately, Browne points out that while I assert “a normal prosthesis-free family does not exist,” my actual illustrations involve (exclusively) “trans communalities” and thus, she felt, “queering ‘normal’ remains a latent possibility” in my text rather than a demonstrated reality. Meanwhile, Fannin takes issue with my strategy of adopting biologist Suzanne Sadedin’s agonistic, anti-generosity narration of pregnancy as a way of advancing those aims. Pregnancy, Maria reminds me, is “hardly presented in modern medical contexts as an entirely risk-free process”. Far from iconoclastic, the basic tenets of the “war in the womb” story are actually “overfamiliar” and – as she argues – have to be understood as complicit in ongoing “structural violence aimed at [some] birth givers” in the broader social and political field. In other words: I should at minimum have prolonged my attack on the demonization of pregnancy if I was going to focus so much criticism on its romanticisation. I address this great point in-depth in my rejoinder.

Another risk (Longhurst correctly identifies) is that we erect, in language, a
sovereign subject of gestation that, for most gestators, simply feels like a lie. However, times change. Ironically, the word “gestate” once denoted the heroic action of horse-riding and is etymologically linked to the very ideal of sovereign subjecthood: gest or geste in Old French meant “famous deed or exploit” (as in: chansons de geste). To geste-ate, then, evokes to me a meta-level of action, a doing of doings: a saddling and riding of exploits and exploitations, where the fetus (or fetuses) participate(s) in the gesture. The purpose of this and of my admittedly clumsy use of abstruse language like “metramorphosis” and “sym-poetic,” as Longhurst hopefully perceives, is to get at the uncanny dynamic in pregnancy that eludes a subject/object division. As we do labour, labour does us back. This elusive quality of the distribution of agency in baby-making labour is unfortunately something I do not know how to reference in consistently simple vocabulary. Yet I am convinced of the insufficiency of the commonplaces at our disposal – formulations like “to be with child”, “to be expecting” and “to have children”, which circle around the exterior of the gestating body and conceal its creativity. Even “to be pregnant” only credits the condition passively to the actor who, having failed to be “impregnable,” was “impregnated”. As for the problem of research subjects not volunteering alternative idioms: all I can say is that some gestators do call what they are doing gestating. For me, politically, that’s enough.

Read more – including Heidi Nast’s far more oppositional response to my work – in the next issue of Dialogues.

And in the meantime, here’s a link to my anchor article: Cyborg Uterine Geography.

 

 

 

All Reproduction is Assisted

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Louise Bourgeois, 2008

Belatedly announcing the fact that I am part of a forum at Boston Review, Issue 7.43(3), Once and Future Feminist, sharing space with the likes of Silvia Federici and Andrea Long Chu while responding to an article by the brilliant writer Merve Emre that surveys American infertilities.

The gender of gestating is ambiguous. I am not talking about pregnancy’s deepening of one’s voice, its carpeting of one’s legs in bristly hair, or even about the ancient Greek belief that it was an analogue of men’s duty to die in battle if called upon. I am not even thinking of the heterogeneity of those who gestate. Rather, in a context where political economists are talking constantly of “the feminization of labor,” it seems to me that the economic gendering of the work itself—gestating is work, as Merve Emre says—is not as clear-cut as it would appear.

Read it here.

Two parts of my PhD published as journal articles

Academic publishing is slow, but I might as well flag, here, the fact that two parts of my PhD were published in the last six months:

Sophie Lewis, “International Solidarity in reproductive justice: surrogacy and gender-inclusive polymaternalism,” Gender, Place & Culture (2018). https://doi.org/10.1080/0966369X.2018.1425286.

Sophie Lewis, “Defending Intimacy against What? Limits of Antisurrogacy Feminisms,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 43, no. 1 (Autumn 2017): 97 125. https://doi.org/10.1086/692518

They’re both archived here at Humanities Commons, which I urge you to join (perhaps deleting your Academia dot edu account).

There are twitter threads summarising their contents here and here.

Life Support: Biocapital and the New History of Outsourced Labor

Life Support: Biocapital and the New History of Outsourced Labor

Society & Space (affiliated with Antipode Journal) has published an essay I wrote on Kalindi Vora’s book Life Support: Biocapital and the New History of Outsourced Labor (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). It is archived here at Radical Antipode. (My thanks to the excellent editor Andy Kent.)

The last two paragraphs of my essay:

“How is a fetus produced?” (p.41)–and how should it be? Babies, insofar as they take the form of commodities, do not command the same political freight as isolated organs, or computer programming, or the affects of personal telephonic support. Yet the practice of transferring embryos and entire pregnancies to settings where “life” is cheap (the better to nurture the lives that are extracted there) forces us to reckon with a workplace politics of gestation which necessarily points beyond surrogacy as an “exception”, towards the work of so-called natural gestation (see Lewis 2015). Meanwhile, to come at denaturalizing the matter from a different angle: the development of methods of mitochondrial splicing now promises the possibility of increasing, beyond two, the number of a baby’s direct genetic parents. It is more pertinent than ever before, then, to further weaponize gene biologist’s Richard Lewontin’s already political claims that “DNA is not self-reproducing…it makes nothing…and organisms are not determined by it” (quoted on p.41).

Within this struggle for a liberatory mode of reproduction, it may not always be strategic to argue that care-based livelihoods are comprised of “labour” rather than something else (“vital energy”, “biology”) in order to win victories. In surrogacy, gestators may develop their challenges to “the assumption that the end product is a form of contract-protected property belonging to the originators of intention and DNA” (p.41) in different vocabularies. The Indian open-source programmers in Chapter 3 of Life Support had a collective notion of authorship at the same time as “the desire to keep the fruits of their labour ‘at home’” (p.101); as such, it would be interesting to inquire into possible analogous desires on the part of Indian gestational surrogates vis-à-vis the newborns they hand away; desires that may already have helped shape the 2015 ruling against private transnational “outsourcing” in their domain. What is “home”? How can we remake this world as a life-support for all its inhabitants? Might a demand to keep the strange fruits of hi-tech gestational labour “at home” articulate favourably with Haraway’s (2015) call to “make kin, not babies”?

Continue reading

How Will Surrogates Struggle? (at The Occupied Times)

How Will Surrogates Struggle? (at The Occupied Times)

Earlier this year The Occupied Times (which is consistently excellent) published a second – different – piece I wrote on gestational workplaces. Flagging this here so you can check it out. It’s called: How Will Surrogates Struggle?

Excerpt:

Surrogate struggle by no means demands a technophobic attitude against assisted reproductive technologies, which should surely rather be reimagined – made to realise collective needs and desires. Because, actually, those who work as surrogates are the technology profitably controlled by others. They embody not only the form-giving fire but the partially conscious primary components. And the woman who stood up to her boss, with whom this article began, points the way to a revolution that begins simply with naming the labour of surrogacy as labour; naming the not-fully-conscious, not-fully-human, body, in which the commissioned baby resides, as synonymous with the labourer herself. We might imagine this struggle as one aiming to overthrow all conditions of life that stratify and impede the flourishing and re-growing of already-existing humans. Starting, certainly, with global markets in reproductive tourism as they currently exist, intensifying patterns of neocolonial inequality. But doubtless also including the nuclear family, based, as it is, on genetic heredity, inheritance, and oppressive divisions of work that prop up the tangled relations of nation, gender and race. Surrogacy, in short, has the potential to make palpable to us how co-produced, worldly and interdependent our bodies are. In the years to come, a form of radical cyborg militancy is to be expected in the gestational workplaces of the world.

Cash and Carry: the surrogacy industry shows how difficult it will be to make new reproductive technologies benefit all.

I published a thing. It’s increasingly clear commercial gestational surrogacy is my ‘beat’ at the moment. So, if you will, please go to Jacobin Magazine and >>read my article<<

It’s called “Cash & Carry“, which I didn’t come up with personally but which I like, because it’s funny and more than mildly crass, in relation to gestational labour (but that crassness is kind o the point). In this article, I survey Assisted Reproductive Technology and surrogacy in particular, somewhat historically, in order to talk about how we could be imagining a communist repro-techno-utopia and embracing unnaturalness, to that end. Here’s an excerpt:

A vast number of women gestate babies for free; those few women whose pregnancies are waged, much like paid caregivers and sex workers, occupy a position that speaks to millions of potential allies. Though many Marxists didn’t think of it, being in labor is labor. Mounting a “wages against pregnancy” campaign could thus refuse the difference between surrogate and normal pregnancies as a jumping-off point for questioning and denaturalizing the prevalent mode of social reproduction more broadly.

What else might this politics look like? The only documented case of the collective bargaining power of surrogates being put to the test is one where a worker was denied leave to visit her dying father, on which she and others threatened to “drop” — willfully miscarry — their babies.

Grim and unpalatable as it may be, most of all for them, this kind of leverage is essentially what the striking workforces of embodied labor have at their disposal. As workers in the field of reproductive vitality, mothers on strike can only really bargain with their ability to extinguish life — a prerogative we must support, as with struggles over abortion access.

At the same time, struggles for reproductive justice from below are incomplete if they fail to speak to the other side of the relation: to the thwarted desire to be a parent. In particular, advancing queer and trans people’s access to the pro-family medical and legal benefits and services of the (admittedly dwindling) welfare state is vital to re-envisioning reproduction. But striving beyond the state for our reproductive justice also entails the freedom to not reproduce at all, and raises all-too-often buried questions: not just “how to reproduce,” but “why”?

As Nina Power puts the problem: “What would it mean to refuse to perpetuate the ongoing processes that constitute and maintain capitalism while refusing to give up on care and other human relations that sustain us? Is it possible to separate the two adequately or at all?”